Fourth of a series by Guest poster Blue.
Honesty, transparency and trust were central planks of Key’s 2008 election bid. He got tough on Winston Peters, insisting that he couldn’t work with someone so dishonest, and his government would set higher standards. He promised to resign as Prime Minister if the age for National Superannuation was raised. He promised no state assets would be sold in the first term, and if that changed he would seek a mandate from the electorate by campaigning on it at the next election.
His goal was to assure the electorate that National could be trusted, by giving them himself to believe in. But Honest John’s record hasn’t been spotless when it comes to his integrity and commitment to transparency.
Key’s tendency to play fast and loose with the truth was recognized by media as early as 2007, when Audrey Young posted a blog titled â€˜I’m bloody angry with Key‘ after he’d misrepresented his position on a complementary medicines proposal. He apologized, and she quickly forgave him, but the â€˜Key wriggle’ was well on the way to becoming a signature dance move.
He refused to say what his position was on the 1981 Springbok Tour, saying “oh, I can’t even remember … 1981, I was 20 … ah … I don’t really know. I didn’t really have a strong feeling on it at the time. Look, it’s such a long time ago.” At the time he was applauded because he was seen to be focusing on the future, rather than the past. But looking back, it was a classic Key instance of avoidance. He does not want to tell outright lies, for fear of being caught, but if the truth will offend, he will try to get out of saying it in any way that he can.
His talk about state asset sales is another classic example of being less than transparent. Bill English is on tape saying that they do want to sell Kiwibank â€˜eventually, but not now’ and John Key promised no asset sales â€˜in our first term’. Despite this, Bill English tested the waters for selling Kiwibank by floating the idea at a post-Budget lunch. Despite the obvious desire to sell state assets, John Key will not come out and admit it, preferring to hide behind the flimsy construction that the Government has not done any work on that yet. He finally ruled out selling Kiwibank only after being caught promising never to sell it on the TV3 leaders debate before the last election.
But perhaps Key’s most acrobatic performance to date has to be on GST. Caught on video before the last election promising not to raise GST if elected, he had to backpeddle furiously after his Government did decide to raise GST. His weak justification that he had said he wouldn’t raise GST â€˜to cover deficits’ was widely panned, with commentators calling on him to admit the truth that before the election he had not intended to raise GST, but after the election and the Tax Working Group’s advice he decided it was a good idea. When he realized that he had promised not to raise it, and could be painted as a liar, he resorted to desperate measures.
With both Kiwibank and GST, Key has had to do some fast talking to get out of trouble. He absolutely does not want to be caught breaking an election promise. His goal is to get a second term for National, where they can do more and swallow fewer dead rats, and he believes that will only happen if he can convince voters that he means what he says. But no matter what promises are made, Key has shown an ability to either get around the promise, or to simply do things he never made any promises about because he didn’t mention them before the election.
Key’s biggest â€˜transparency’ coup has been around exposing MP’s expenses to the media. Phil Heatley â€˜resigned’ over a very small expenses matter, making Key’s administration look like an almost draconian guardian of public money (necessary after Bill English’s housing allowance revelations).
Key then tried to set Labour up by exposing their ministerial credit card expenses from when they were in Government, knowing that with any such exercise there’s always something the media can find to whip into a scandal and doing it only after he’d scared his own ministers off using their cards so they’d be squeaky clean. However, when one of those ministers, Tim Groser, was caught up in it over his hefty alcohol bills, Key made excuses for him and refused to take any action.